The awakening continues

I recently came across some writing that provided a strong challenge to the economic status quo, which was perhaps most interesting because of its source. Here are a couple of excerpts that I found especially interesting:

“The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries. This can be done by investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology that can make the best use of the human, natural and socio-economic resources that are more readily available at the local level, while guaranteeing their sustainability over the long term as well. All this needs to be accomplished with the involvement of local communities in choices and decisions that affect the use of agricultural land…”

“Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of “social capital”: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence.“

These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI. His recent papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, has been two years in the making and was finally released just before Italy hosted the G-8 summit. It is a profound challenge to the economic order, and its timing could not be more pointed.

I am not Catholic, but I am deeply moved and encouraged by Benedict’s words. I believe they should be welcomed by all people, regardless of their beliefs.

It would not be accurate to portray this writing as anything but a religious document, and indeed it makes numerous references to God and Christian doctrine. It also takes strong positions on abortion and bioethics that may cause some to discount the entire document. However, I hope that people take the time to read this document in order to understand its ramifications for a world racked by economic crisis.

Benedict’s broadside has already triggered some reflection in publications that might ordinarily be expected to resist or ignore such a challenge.

The Wall Street Journal published an essay by Father Robert Sirico, saying, “People seeking a blueprint for the political restructuring of the world economy won’t find it here. But if they look to this document as a means for the moral reconstruction of the world’s cultures and societies, which in turn influence economic events, they will find much to reflect upon.”

Of course, Sirico also claims that the document doesn’t attack capitalism (a term he seems to use interchangeably with market economy, even though one is an ideology and the other is an economic structure). I would argue that Benedict does effectively attack capitalism at its conceptual roots, even without using those words, or suggesting government policies.

For example, he says that the results of capitalist development “require further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goal, as well as a profound and far-sighted revision of the current model of development, so as to correct its dysfunctions and deviations. This is demanded, in any case, by the earth’s state of ecological health; above all it is required by the cultural and moral crisis of man, the symptoms of which have been evident for some time all over the world.” (emphasis in original)

Calling for a “profound and far-sighted revision” may not be an outright attack, but it sure isn’t an endorsement.

The Economist found the Pope’s thoughts on the environment worthy of focus for its own article titled “New sins, new virtues.” Examining how religious leaders are increasingly “moving away from the old stress on individual failings (stealing, lying, cheating) and talking more about the fate of humanity as a whole,” the piece provides a very useful survey of recent developments of ecological concern among Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox Christians, as well as Buddhists and Muslims.

When considering the growing interest in ecology as a religious issue, we should add the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which proclaims, “Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.” (which has been signed by the president of the National Association of Evangelicals) We should also note long-standing efforts by many other Protestant groups, as well as the emerging concept of “eco-kosher” and the Jewish community’s attention to justice as a food issue.

Ultimately, there is a profound moral intersection between ecology and economy. The world’s dwindling natural resources demand that we take a hard look at how they are used, and by whom. We can no longer afford unsustainable concentrations of wealth, which necessarily result in greater suffering among the poor.

It is no wonder that the economic crisis has created a tipping point in the religious discussion of resources. Some may simply shrug and claim that the market is amoral, and that is fine for the nonreligious. But growing scarcity and growing inequality demand that any serious morality include environmental issues as a major focus. Charity falls flat when it only addresses the negative impact of careless consumption.

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